São Paulo's Asbestos Battle
On July 27, 2007, the Governor of São Paulo State, José Serra sanctioned a state law (12.684/07) proposed by State Deputy Marcos Martins which prohibits the use of all types of asbestos in São Paulo State, Brazil.1 Previous state asbestos bans, including one in São Paulo, were annulled by a (Federal) Supreme Court ruling which declared that the power to regulate matters relating to trade and mining did not reside with individual states.2 Despite pre-election promises to ban asbestos by the current Brazilian President, the federal government has maintained the status quo which permits the widespread usage of chrysotile asbestos.
Asbestos lobbyists reacted as expected to the news. Through its trade union arm, Eternit, Brazil's biggest producer of asbestos-cement and the owner of a chrysotile mine in Goais State,3 demanded that a regional court impose an injunction to prevent the implementation of this new legislation; a São Paulo State Court introduced a liminar, a legal instrument which can be imposed to protect a company from potentially damaging financial developments. The Court's precipitous action ignored the fact that the Supreme Court had already discounted the urgency for taking such a drastic step.
On August 29, 2007, Brazil's Supreme Court began a high-profile hearing on this issue. The judges, better known for their reactionary views than their green credentials, surprised many observers with comments suggesting that, in the absence of federal regulations, they supported state actions which protect citizens from health risks. The final decision on the legality of the São Paulo ban could take months even years due to the notoriously slow progress of the court system. ABREA, the Brazilian association representing asbestos victims, is following this case closely.
Should the São Paulo ban be upheld, there is no doubt that other states and municipalities will follow suit. As asbestos is now being used in the farthest reaches of Brazil, state-wide bans will almost certainly erode domestic demand for Brazilian chrysotile. Recent investigations have uncovered market penetration in remote rural areas such as small villages near the Venezuelan border, where traditional roofing material is being replaced by asbestos-cement products.
|Asbestos cement and traditional roofs used on rural structures|
September 3, 2007
1 The ban is effective immediately for new uses of asbestos in: public and private buildings, domestic appliances, toys and other goods used by children; remaining uses will be banned on January 1, 2008. Sixty-five per cent of Brazil's asbestos plants are in São Paulo; the State represents the country's biggest market for asbestos-cement products.
3 Eternit is a national state company owned by pension and social funds from state banks.